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Opinion
Brett McGurk

A Five-Step Plan to Get Trump Out of the Iran Crisis

Trump says he wants Iran back at the table, but “maximum pressure” alone won’t make it happen. 

Let’s calm down, everybody.

Let’s calm down, everybody.

Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The U.S. remains on a collision course with Iran. Donald Trump continues to declare minimalist objectives – direct talks focused on nuclear activities - while his advisers pursue maximalist ends, ranging from a list of demands that Iran cannot hope to meet to regime change. His administration, meanwhile, is working to strangle Iran’s economy through sanctions with no consistent aim. Iran, in turn, has no clear understanding of what it is being asked to do, and thus views U.S. moves in existential terms.  

No doubt, Iran’s destructive actions – attacks on oil tankers, support for stepped-up rocket attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen, the downing of a U.S. reconnaissance drone - must be condemned and countered. But current U.S. policy appears to be making Iran more reckless, not less. It is important at this stage to consider how best to protect U.S. interests and maintain pressure on Iran without further increasing the risks of an unpredictable conflict. A better approach would first recognize that the key assumption underlying current policy — that “maximum pressure” alone will force Iran to new talks on U.S. terms — has proved unlikely. Since the U.S. left the table one year ago, Iran has shown no readiness to return. It would then set conditions for an improved nuclear deal, through a mix of pressure and limited incentives tied to well-defined objectives.